Slippery & Untameable: Miriam Calleja on J. Mae Barizo’s Tender Machines

A book of poetry can land on your lap heavily during a time of contemplation, or it can float down excruciatingly slowly, revealing itself and the message it has for you right now. Tender Machines entered my life when I was thinking deeply about translation, and although written in English, it felt like the poet herself was conducting an exercise in constant translation.

J. Mae Barizo cracks open a narrative of tenderness, but we must not mistake tenderness for weakness. We must not mistake tenderness for softness. And we must never, ever mistake softness for submission. And this brings me to the question: are women tender machines or steel machines of tenderness?

Barizo’s woman is untameable even as she is on her knees. She writes about the double-edged sword of fitting in and not fitting in while fighting for both. She writes about being unable to hide her roots, not wanting to hide her roots

ever paid a week’s salary coloring / the grays           or cried into a hot tub full of younger / more pliable people

The poet takes the historical (and ongoing) devotion-degradation-submission expectation of women and plays it as background music to her pieces.

vigilant animals
on our hands and knees,
asking for it again and again

Asking for it, gulping Xanax, and staying wide awake. Barizo makes the task of suffering almost attractive. She visits the deep cave of infinite worries as a mother, a woman in her 40s, a child, a lover, an outsider-insider, a woman in love and lust. Time is slowed down during intimacy, it drags us back to the beginnings of it, and it makes us look. And therein lies the musicality and poetry of an observer, the attachment-detachment to a familiar and foreign landscape.

And in so many of these thoughts, the word ‘white’ seeps through. Whether as background noise or supporting band, the repetition is difficult to miss – white, diamond, bleached. Another echo when referring to the way her skin tans. As a European who spent her life referring to herself as white only to discover she was not-so-white when living in the US, this resonated all too well with me.

Whose side am I on? My skin, my
skin beneath the sun of my ancestors darkens so easily

This, from Woman contemplates her complicity, is laced with guilt for in-betweenness that, in her eyes, reflects privilege when faced with the conditions her countrywomen live in, in the place her parents left in search of a better life, and how ‘whites’ perceive and treat her depending on her accent or the clothes she is wearing. We cannot help but be informed by what we notice, there is no not noticing in the brain, even though we can then choose how we act.

In assimilating the themes in tender machines, I can’t help but recollect the essay Preserving the tender things by Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi, published in Violent Phenomena (Tilted Axe Press, 2022) in which the author writes about identity and uses the idea of code-switching in a playful-serious way. Rather than switching between languages, Siddiqi splits the essay between biography and academic, body and mind, and the argument about how arbitrary these borders are. The epigraph to this essay reads, ‘I will have my serpent’s tongue – my woman’s voice, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice. ’– Gloria Anzaldúa

See the muteness of my hands?
A love I once gave away
Haunts me everywhere.

In this comment, Anzaldúa, a Chicana poet, practically summarizes tender machines for me. And this is why writing this review takes months. Each time I fall into a rabbit hole, I dive into the DNA of constant translation, of not fitting in, of sexuality, tenderness, of the machine it takes to build a woman. Each time I am taken to middle spaces that arrest my thoughts.

I want you to view my body
as ineffible, an ocean—

And even if I cannot resonate with motherhood, I am struck by its vulnerability in these poems, its monumental tenderness and strength. Its forces are in constant flux and fight. I am struck by the almost-violence of different sorts of love: for a child, a grandmother, a partner, a lover, a cat. And recognizing, in every one of these relationships, our limited control. Then perhaps noting that this is what makes each one so beautiful that it hurts.

And what is it you hate? She asked
Bureaucracy. And what is it you love?
he asked. Rivers.

Miriam Calleja gives herself and others permission to write. She is the bilingual author of poetry collections Pomegranate Heart, Inside, Stranger Intimacy, the long poem Remember, and the collaboration Luftmeer. Her work has appeared in Odyssey, Transpoesie, and Fly on the Wall Poetry. Her translated work has appeared in the performance Medinea, on Red Fern Review, and is forthcoming in Modern Poetry in Translation. She has read at Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival (Malta), Schamrock Festival for Women Poets (Germany), Poetry on the Lake (Italy), and Wednesday Night Poets (US).